When No Means Yes and Don’t Means Do
The other day when I called my dogs, I got to thinking about the beliefs about learning we impose on our animals and how they and we have to live with the consequences of this. I said I called my dogs, but because I got so caught up in my own needs when I was teaching—and I use the verb "teaching" loosely—them the Come command, the Come has become a “Come One Two” command. It started out so innocently (perhaps stupidly is a better word) on my part...
The shameful scenario unfolded like this. I gave the dogs the come command and they blew me off because I was too lazy to have lines on them before I gave them the command so I could ensure that they understood what I wanted when I said that word. I was also too lazy to do anything about it when they didn’t come…until their not coming became a pain in the butt for some reason one day. Then in a fit of pique, I did what my mother always did when my sibs and I weren’t paying attention. I started counting. I got all the way to two before the stupidity of this hit me and I did what I should have done the first time: I went out and brought the dogs in.
From the dogs’ point of view, I’m sure this was yet another of those incidents that caused them to think they’re living with a lower life form. However, lucky for me—and for a lot of dog-owners I think—the idea that they might have to live with a human whose hard drive wasn’t fully loaded was enough to cause the dogs to graciously accept my irrational behavior. Particularly when my consistent reinforcement of the new command made it the norm. Although they still have no idea what “Come” means—and God knows why I persist in even using the useless command except to prove how much more difficult it is to train myself than a dog—their response to the Come One Two” command is excellent. (I’d say “perfect,” but I don’t want to put a jinx on their stellar response.) Even deaf BeeBee makes a beeline for the door when she sees the other two heading that way.
Pitiful as this confession is, I take some slight comfort in knowing that at least and painful though it may be, I’m aware of what I’m doing. There are a surprising number of people who think that they have full control over their dogs when they actually have little to none at all.
Let’s look at a few examples. Heading the list are the owners of dogs who jump all over people but then instantly settle down when the owner gives the Sit or Down command. In that person’s mind, the jumping problem has been solved because the dog stops on command. But the dog stopping the behavior on command is not the same as the dog not jumping in the first place. After 5 years the dog is still jumping and these folks are still giving the dog the Sit or Down command: Does that sound like a dog trained not to jump on people to you?
Another one is the dog-on/off-the-bed routine. Let me begin this discussion by noting that I have no problem whatsoever with dogs on the bed if this is agreeable to all the people in the bed, and if the dog has no behavioral problems that communicate the animal is calling the shots rather than the people. On the other hand, if the dog has behavioral issues that raise the specter of human-canine role reversal, then the dog needs to be off the bed to prevent reinforcing the higher canine status that being there signifies and the role this plays in those problem displays.
At this point, someone who has a dog who hates other dogs, or men, or little kids, or who trashes the house when they’re gone might be thinking, “She’s not talking about Snookems because he only gets on the bed when I invite him and always gets off when I tell him to.”
Once again we have a human attempt to have our control-cake and eat it too. Like me giving a come command I was too lazy to follow through on or someone who keeps giving a leaping dog the down command for umpteen years, the bed-folks want to maintain the illusion that they’re in control of the dog when they really aren’t. The critical point isn’t that the dog gets on or off the bed on command. The critical point is that this particular dog with his particular behavioral problems and what these communicate about his relationship with these particular people in this particular household shouldn’t be on the bed at all.
Once again, the command process is strictly for human benefit and not to teach anything meaningful to the animal.
Another variation on this theme takes the form of the after-the-fact approach. Its signature is the question, “What should I do when the dog ________ (lunges at the paperboy/attacks the neighbor’s dog/eats my best pair of shoes, etc.)” Relative to effecting meaningful change in the most energy-efficient manner, the first step is whap ourselves over the head with a rolled up newspaper for allowing the misbehavior to occur in the first place. Simultaneously, if the animal’s negative behavior poses any danger whatsoever to anyone of any species, it’s our moral and legal obligation to do whatever we have to do to stop the behavior immediately, even if this means we or our animals get hurt. Yes, that sounds harsh, but that’s the price we must pay if we choose not to properly train our animals and/or have them fully under our control. It’s our responsibility (and that of our animals by virtue of being owned by us) to accept the consequences of this choice, no matter how painful.
Worse, for all the drama and trauma that may be associated with after-the-fact responses, they don’t teach the animal anything about the proper response under those circumstances. Should the same conditions arise that caused the negative response, any subsequent proper response the animal makes will be the result of dumb luck, not anything we did. As such, it’s unreliable. Compare this approach to consciously and consistently distracting the animal with an acceptable option before he or she has a chance to display the negative behavior. It’s a completely different ballgame. The former relies on chance, the latter on a conscious choice to alter the animal’s behavior in a specific way.
I agree. This isn’t rocket science. So why do we persist in giving commands that don’t work or making after-the-fact responses? Most likely we do it because it works for us. I can attest to the fact that it takes a lot less energy to stand in the door and shout “Come!” and hope the dog comes than it does to actually set up the situation so the dog must. Nor is there any shortage of people who believe that a dog’s willingness to abort a negative behavior at the sound of a command signifies a well-behaved dog. Surround yourself with those kinds of folks and there’s no reason to change. But stay away from spoil-sports like me who might point out that, yes, your dog is well-trained. But she’s not well-behaved. Meanwhile back in the bedroom, if we really want and need our dogs in bed with us for comfort, it’s so much easier to divorce the significance of what this communicates in canine terms as it affects those less endearing canine behaviors than bite the bullet and get the dog off the bed.
So just as our animals’ negative behaviors represent what is to them the most energy-efficient way to achieve mental and physical stability at that time, so are our more self- than animal-serving approaches to training. Anyone can learn the process of training. The hard part is to step back and analyze what we’re doing in terms of what it actually communicates to the animal as well as means to us. It doesn’t have to be a case of “What I want comes first and the animal will just have to deal with it.” There are options that work for both components of the human-animal relationship. All that’s necessary is to care enough to look for them.
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